South Korea confirms 4th swine fever case in a week

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA: South Korea's African swine fever crisis intensified Tuesday with lab tests confirming the fourth case in a week from a farm near its border with North Korea. It raised fears officials are losing a battle to halt the spread of the disease that wiped out pig populations across Asia.

More than 15,000 pigs were culled after the country's first two outbreaks were confirmed last week in the border towns of Paju and Yeoncheon, but officials have yet to identify the infection route. The disease may have crossed from North Korea, which reported an outbreak near its border with China in late May.

In a closed-door briefing to lawmakers, South Korean National Intelligence Service Director Suh Hoon said North Korea had had new cases after July despite culling pigs, disinfecting farms and restricting the distribution of pork products, lawmaker Lee Eun-jae said. Lee did not mention whether the spy agency described how it obtained the information.

South Korea's Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed the country's fourth case at another farm in Paju, which raised some 2,300 pigs, after blood tests confirmed the illness caused three miscarriages in the animals.

The country's third case had just been confirmed Monday night at a farm in Gimpo, which is on the southern side of a river that separates the border region and the metropolitan area surrounding Seoul. Later Tuesday, the ministry said another case was suspected in the island county of Ganghwa, which is part of the metropolitan city of Incheon that borders Seoul, where about half of South Koreans live.

African swine fever is harmless to people, but spreading from farms to densely populated areas will make it harder to contain. The illness is highly contagious and fatal for pigs, with no known cure.

In South Korea, where diets rely heavily on pork, there is concern the outbreak could spread and hurt an industry with 6,300 farms raising more than 11 million pigs. The disease decimated pig herds in China and other Asian countries before reaching the Koreas.

Officials have said the first three weeks will be crucial to prevent the outbreak from spreading, considering incubation periods. They strengthened quarantine and prevention measures like tightly restricting the movement of farmers, animals and vehicles.

Since Monday evening, the government has imposed a 48-hour standstill on farms, slaughter houses and feed factories in Gyeonggi province, which governs the three towns where infections were reported, as well as the nearby Gangwon Province and Incheon.

Government workers dressed in lab coats and masks guarded roadblocks near farms in Paju, where excavators have been used to dig huge pits used for killing and burying thousands of pigs. The gates, entrances and grounds of many farms were covered in snowy layers of calcium oxide, a disinfectant.

Officials also plan to install more traps, nets and fences to capture or repel wild boars that roam in and out of North Korea, which some experts see as a potential source of the outbreak in South Korea. The Ministry of Environment said it's testing water from a river that flows across the inter-Korean border to see whether the virus would be detected and also searching these areas for dead wild boars.

North Korea in recent months has virtually scrapped all diplomatic activity and cooperation with South Korea amid a standstill in nuclear negotiations with the United States, complicating efforts at preventing the North Korean outbreak from spreading to areas near the border. South Korea's Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, said the North is continuing to ignore the South's calls for joint quarantine efforts.